WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of WVU v. Liberty

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Those are the words of Dana Holgorsen, not Saturday evening, but four days earlier during his weekly news conference. It was an interesting point I think was lost on or eluded some of the audience in the room or wherever they were watching or reading his words.

He’d been asked about young receivers Jovon Durante and Shelton Gibson and whether or not consistency was the next step. It’s a generic if not cliche concern after someone new does something new. It’s asked — a lot — with the intent of getting a simple reply in the affirmative.

Holgorsen is not a simple man. I mean, he prefers simplicity, famously I might add, but he’s not going to let you drag him down the alley you wish to walk. There’s more depth to him than there is to some of the questions he’s asked.

He did not offer the affirmative as his reply, and his reasoning was interesting. Neither Durante nor Gibson know or have done enough to be expected to do things consistently. They’re still figuring out how to actually do things and do them right, and a quarterback in a situation not unlike theirs is a central part of their existence, too. Each of those three needs more experience and improvements before they can be expected to be consistent.

His defense, on the other hand, ought to be counted on to be consistent, “because they are old. They are fifth-year seniors, and they are well-coached. They believe in the system, and they are confident.” Those players know and have done enough to attain consistency. They do things and do them right. It might be a year before the parts of his offense are expected to behave that way. His defense is already there, and that, in a manner of speaking, explains the 44-0 win against Georgia Southern.

What Holgorsen said, also in a manner of speaking, foreshadowed the 41-17 win against Liberty. Afterward, he said the defense was lethargic. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said it was bleh. Neither was wrong, and Holgorsen was right that Tuesday to be concerned about subsequent Saturdays. Whatever this defense has been called, wherever the bar has been set, remember that bold praise and bolder predictions are also new. These conversations are the antithesis of what occurred previously. It’s a new pair of shoes. Looks good. Smells good. Feels a little funny for a while.

I don’t know that 44-0 was this group’s high point. There was a shutout last season, but it was followed by a really shaky day against Maryland. There was the Baylor win last year, and that was followed by a solid day and a defensive touchdown against Oklahoma State and a winning performance in a loss to TCU.

Of course, that defeat came about because of a defensive breakdown on the final drive. It haunted the team, and then Texas ran all over the Mountaineers in the first half of a win a week later. WVU regrouped and held Kansas State to 1 yard rushing, but the Wildcats won. Iowa State, ahem, Iowa State then ran for 175 and passed for 275 in a WVU win before the same defense spent weeks preparing for a Texas A&M offense that should have been familiar. The Liberty Bowl was probably the worst day the defense had last season.

You see the trend, and you now understand what Holgorsen was trying to say. This is a capable defense. It had a good day in the opener. But it was capable last season and had good days. It just wasn’t capable and good at the same time a bunch of times in a row. And it that dip happened again. There pass rush rush was not great. The secondary was passive. Good players missed tackles. Good players played out of character.

A good defense that can be great didn’t have a great day. Part of it is human nature. Again, success is new, and success when expected, which is exactly what happened in the opener, is new. Put them together and it can be dangerous. I think Liberty had a smart quarterback, some able running backs, a big offensive line that had a pretty good day and a set of sound receivers. That played a part in it all, but I think Holgorsen was onto something, too. Whatever went into the Georgia Southern performance and then happened within it is what this defense must replicate. The bad part is there was a drop from one week to the next. The good part is it didn’t cost the Mountaineers, who are 2-0 for the first time since starting 5-0 in 2013.

How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at he good and the bad of WVU v. Liberty.

Bad: Verve
This was a play that stood out to me. WVU was up 20-0, but the score was very misleading with missed field goals and missed opportunities that, honestly, could have had the Mountaineers trailing. I’ll get to that, but this is when you figured WVU would stand above its feet and get things right. Halftime came and went, and we’re sure there was a lecture involved. Nick O’Toole’s punt was downed at the 1-yard line, and the defense had a chance to get a stop and get the offense the ball in favorable position. How in the world does this play gain 12 yards? WVU has a 2-on-1 on the play side, and the blocker wins. The gold jerseys don’t get over there in a hurry or with the right intentions. At its best, the Mountaineers fly and flock to the ball, but that wasn’t there — remember Des Rice carrying Terrell Chestnut as the cornerback tried to strip the ball? That’s not a bad idea when someone is there to make the tackle as a teammate tries the strip. Chestnut had no backup. Again, out of character.

Good: Darrien Howard
The inevitable eventually happened. The defense got a stop. The offense got a short field. Then it happened again in the third quarter and WVU got away from the Flames, but it was more a product of special teams and — whoa! — red zone offense. But tip your cap to Darrien Howard here. The play is supposed to happen fast and across the middle, and that means the lineman is going to chop Howard down to make sure he’s on the ground and opens the window for that quick play in the middle. Howard avoids the ax and tip the pass. That’s a tough play. Howard and Kyle Rose have a fun rotation going now. Rose plays many of the snaps, but Howard fills in nicely. They’re different players with different bodies — Rose is a better technician who wins with fundamentals and leverage and savvy; Howard is the better and quicker athlete in the tight space — but they’re handling the nose without many issues so far.

Good: Nose guard stunts
I don’t get them, but Gibson does like them, and Howard darn near got home on one Saturday.

Bad: How?
Here’s the play that drove Gibson crazy. I was talking to someone else as it happened, but I overheard someone ask Gibson in the postgame about his defense getting caught in a blitz on the long touchdown. I knew that wasn’t the case, so I veered over to that conversation, and Gibson made it clear he did not blitz. He drops eight here and it still turns into a 60-yard score. It’s a combination of things — the play-fake sucks in the linebackers and that affects the depth they (don’t) have for the pass, the three rushing don’t affect the play early enough, the quarterback gives himself time and then an angle so he can step into the throw, the defense is all spread out, the receiver is fast and the pass hits him on the go  — that come together at once. In short, that’s what has to happen to create a 60-yard touchdown against eight defenders. I’d be willing to be this doesn’t happen again.

Bad: Pass rush
Holgosen said it didn’t look good, and he’s right because his guys weren’t putting hands on Liberty’s Josh Woodrum, and it didn’t look like the defensive line was into it like it was a week earlier. I think we’re overplaying things to say it stunk against the Flames. Gibson didn’t blitz all that much. When he did, especially early in the second half, Woodrum got rid of the ball fast, with a quick trigger and plays that are executed to beat pressure. You’re not sacking screens, slants and fades. And though it may pain you to say it, Liberty’s line was good, too. WVU did get through and around a few times and hit Woodrum, though to no avail. Gibson also thought the coverage was made to be transparent a few times, too.

Zero sacks is zero sacks, and WVU is indeed tied for last in the nation with one through two games, but let’s remember the first opponent only threw 13 passes. WVU intercepted four, and on three of them the quaterback was under duress, including two by Karl Joseph in Cover 0 situations. If WVU gets sacks on those plays, Joseph ends up with but one interception. I’m not saying sacks are overrated, but I think that statistic is oftentimes misunderstood or the cause of misplaced blame. For what it’s worth, Maryland hasn’t allowed a sack all year, but the Terrapins were just embarrassed at home against Bowling Green and will start a new quarterback against USF Saturday.

Good: Starts
Christian Brown is not supposed to make this play. The design says so. Brown is to get though, and then the H-back is supposed to sweep across and wall him off. No. 95 doesn’t much care for that and makes a play that seemed to suggest WVU’s front would have itself an afternoon. This was the second snap for Liberty and the only TFL for WVU’s defensive line.

Good: Start … again
So, how about Al-Rasheed Benton? I wasn’t sure what WVU would do without Jared Barber. There were two options, and the Mountaineers would have been fine with either one. Gibson, who I should remind you coaches the linebackers, could have moved Nick Kwiatkoski from Sam to the middle, where he started and from where he led the team in tackles last season, and elevated Xavier Preston to the starter at Sam. Or Gibson could have kept things as they were and simply elevated Benton from backup Mike to the starter. The Mountaineers chose the later, and we got our first extended look at Benton. In roughly one-and-a-half games, we can say he has instincts and speed.

This is a fine play on third down that he has to make to get his teammates off the field. He’s alone with a running back, who sees Benton coming and cannot shake him. It’s fantastic. (Aside: Pause it at :07. The receiver at the top of the screen is open past the first-down marker, and he has room to run. Woodrum, though, knew the blitz was coming from his left, and he followed the rules, which encourage passers to look to the blitz side and find a quick option in the space vacated by the blitz. This isn’t a sack, but it’s just as effective.) Benton has tools, man. He’s strong. He’s mean. He’s imposing in the middle, and that’s something you want when the offense looks across the line before every play. Who’s messing with that guy? (Reminds me of this guy.) But he also has a knack that’s rare for an inexperienced player. He gets off blocks. Time and again Saturday, Benton was engaged by the center or a guard, and rather than fight it and work himself out of the play, Benton calmly and forcefully played through it, positioned himself properly and made the play.

Whew. WVU starts three fifth-year seniors at linebacker, but I think WVU feels pretty good about Preston, Benton and, if you’re asking me, David Long next season.

Good: Gang mentality
We’ve seen Gibson do this before, and having everyone stand up messes with offensive lines. No one knows who’s coming. It’s easy for the defenders to stunt and twist without tipping it. They’re already up and a step in by the time the offensive line is up and trying to get square. I counted four snaps with this, and on the first three Gibson sent three and dropped the three defensive linemen into coverage, which is something else the offense can’t predict. You’re not expecting guys wearing numbers in the 90s to be in your passing lanes. On this one, five blitz and Benton drops. The pressure gets there. Kwiatkoski hits Woodrum as he releases and WVU gets off the field. I guess a sack gets you a safety or perhaps a fumble and a touchdown instead of a punt, so, sure, a sack is more productive here, but WVU got the ball back and scored to take a 34-7 lead.

Good: O’Toole rules!
He punted very well. The blinker he put on the punt that went out of bounds on the Liberty 3 was sublime. The one before that, which Nana Kyeremeh downed at the 1, was a 57-yard boot. He’s punted very well in the first two games — I’ll attempt to explain how Friday morning — and his two field flips Saturday preceded a pair of touchdowns.

Bad: O’Toole repeats
The kickoffs are another matter. All of his kicks go left — he’s admitting this — and some lack hangtime. Teams are going to scheme for that.

Good: The beginning
Two delightfully uneventful games by the punt return team! Actually, two uneventful games on special teams. My big critique the past few years was that a special teams thing couldn’t simply happen without incident. Someone or something was bound to go bad. That hasn’t been the case yet, unless the nit you want to pick is that Georgia Southern got penetration on some extra points and field goals, which did happen. But that wasn’t an issue against Liberty, and neither was anything else. Dillon finally got to return a punt, and I told you he was going to be exciting. This was just that, up to and including the tackle by the punter and Dillon’s likely incredulous double take afterward. It’s worth noting Dillon caught punts in a game for the first time from a left-footed punter, which means the ball was spinning and descending in a manner he is not used to.

Bad: Whiff!
And here I thought Dillon was the hurdler. Holgorsen said WVU missed twice as many tackles against Liberty than it did against Southern. Dillon was in on a few of them, and controlled approaches have been an issue in the past. I don’t know, can we issue a pass on this one? I don’t think the scout team tight end is doing this in practice. I wonder if this evasive maneuver ever crossed Dillon’s mind. And I pity the next player who attempts this against Dillon in the open field. Dude will get Don Beebe’d. (Aside: Johnson’s transfer was a story during game week. I don’t know what happened when he was on campus. I don’t know if he didn’t develop or if he didn’t care or if he really didn’t think he had a future in this offense. I do know he didn’t have a position coach, which seems to prevent certain strides a player ought to make, but Cody Clay didn’t have one, either, and he’s done all right. I do wonder, though, what could have happened, because Johnson is an athlete out there who is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He’s right when he says the WVU offense doesn’t have a place for a tight ends, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask: What if it did?)

Bad: Segue!
And now I make the seamless transition into the red zone situations and the shorter, lighter targets with which Skyler Howard works. Does a tight end in the slot or firing off the line help? Probably, but ask yourself how many times Clay has been targeted in the red zone. This isn’t a good throw or a good decision, and I don’t know if a taller player would have been able to reach it or if a bulkier player would have been able to create more space for a throw, but these are the cards WVU has to play down here. The bigger issue is not the smaller target but rather Howard missing Shelton Gibson at the bottom of the screen. The inside receiver goes vertical to create space, and Gibson cuts across the middle to get open. But Howard saw Liberty was blitzing, changed the play and threw on the blitz side. Looking left, he would have seen Gibson had a 10-yard cushion on the cornerback. Quarterback and receiver knowing one another like they do, I’m sure Howard would have expected Gibson to run the route he ran. Point being, once more, this isn’t a sack, but the pressure affected the play.

Good: Red zone read
We knew Howard’s wheels would be an asset in the red zone, and the Mountaineers, who are using the zone read a bunch, are wedging this into their red zone arsenal. (Aside: I’m writing about this later in the week, but I’ve liked WVU’s play calls and some of the decisions Howard has made, but there have been some miscues, too.) This is Good Rushel Shell here, but there’s been a bit of Bad Rushel Shell in the red zone, too. He’s definitive here, but he’s danced around on too many other carries, and that’s not the place to be so artistic. And this is the right call here. Boiled down, the zone read depends on the quarterback reading the backside defensive end and deciding, in a hurry, whether that end is going to chase the running back or the quarterback. Once Howard solves the defensive end’s intentions, he’s supposed to do the opposite. The right defensive end is on Howard. The quarterback knows the end is where he is, and he knows Shell has numbers if he gets the handoff. Good decision and good gain.

Bad: Shell
He’s fighting himself, and you can see it. He’s dancing because he’s looking for a big gain, but when you’re searching, the opponents are closing in, and it’s too hard to re-start those feet to get out of trouble. But here’s the dilemma: Wendell Smallwood is playing pretty well. He deserves touches. Howard is able to keep the ball and run. Holgorsen and running backs coach JaJuan Seider say that Shell is better when he gets more touches and gets in a rhythm. Where is this going? Are they spelling out to Shell that he has to change his ways and get in a lather on fewer carries? Or are they explaining why he might continue to get carries in batches?

Not so sure about this one, though I like that it’s in this formation. It makes used of the numbers, and if the personnel is right, Howard could play he shell game with any of the running backs. On this one, if Howard lets go, there’s a big gain on the right side because there are two blockers coming out of the backfield. Howard keeps, and the defense is flowing to its left, but Howard doesn’t have enough help in close quarters.

And I’m not sure about this one, either. The player Howard reads is all over the give, and that might have been his assignment because he’s not the defensive end chasing plays up the line. But pause it at :06. Howard scores, right?

This is new stuff for Holgorsen’s offense, especially in this quantity. We also don’t know when it’s a straight up run call, and Howard is merely selling the possibility he has the ball as a way to freeze that pursuit up the line; that could well be the case here. What we do know is it’s part of the plan and Holgorsen wasn’t completely satisfied with Howard’s decisions.

Good: Lesson learned
Durante didn’t make this play the week before. In a similar spot and against a similar defense in his second game, he gets his head around early and further helps his quarterback with the catch for a touchdown. He didn’t have the big plays Saturday, and Liberty did all it could to prevent them, but this was nevertheless promising.

Good: Streak!
This isn’t identical to the play Durante couldn’t finish the week before on the goal line. In fact, it’s a play the Mountaineers have run efore, but surely Durant’s motion set off alarms. That, the fake and the fact Howard is running with the ball on the perimeter let Elijah Wellman walk into the end zone. Howard was 0-for-4 in the red zone last week and 0-for-3 to start the Liberty game. He completed his next four red zone passes, and two were touchdowns. Three of those four — the exception being the slant to Durante — were plays he wasn’t running up close before. They all came after halftime. I’m just mentioning this for your consumption.

Bad: Oof
Kyle Bosch was better in his second game than he was in his first, and we have to remember, too, that though he’s a junior, he hasn’t played a junior’s share of college football. He got rocked backward on the failed fourth-and-1 against Georgia Southern, and he’s going in reverse on this short-yardage play, too.

Good: Changeups
Liberty crowded the line to defend the run and also kept defensive backs deep to take away deep balls. Holgorsen and Howard shifted and took quicker throws, either screens or swings outside, and intermediate plays to slot receivers in the middle. This was one of those, and it gave Gary Jennings, who I’ve heard is making strides, his first career catch. (Side bad: WVU’s perimeter blocking was not good. There were a few times when Durante, Gibson or Devonte Mathis simply engaged a cornerback and didn’t push or turn him. Jenning has room here. He doesn’t help Daikiel Shorts when he runs inside instead of outside, but Shorts didn’t really give Jennings an obvious choice.)

Good: Patience
The long line of short routes and quick passes makes a defense antsy. Those guys want to make plays, and I bet some of the Liberty defensive backs, and the safeties in particular, we ready to go up and come down with some passes. I’m not sure what Liberty safety Avery James is thinking here, unless he’s actually Inspector Gadget and can magically extend his arms to get a paw on this pass, in which case I apologize for not doing my homework. It’s not well thought out, and his decision takes him out of position. He probably shouldn’t have nailed his cornerback’s cleats into the turf, either. I like Gibson, and his speed writes the check, but this wasn’t that good of a move.

Good: Update!
This the first and only time Howard pushed the ball down the field. We’re defining that as a throw that travels from the line of scrimmage at least 20 yards down the field. He was 6-for-10 for 255 yards and two scores in the opener. He was 1-for-1 26 yards against Liberty.

Good: Rerun
Hey, WVU enjoyed good fortune once again. Liberty’s All-America kicker missed his first three field-goal attempts. A certain score on an option play fell apart on a bobbled pitch. This one was just as significant, too. I thought Darrin Peterson was going to score. Pause it at :07. If Peterson looks left, he’s gone. Johnson is there to block Darly Worley (that might have been ugly) and Karl Joseph isn’t going to recover in time to catch Peterson. This should have been a 7-6 game. It wasn’t, and WVU ducked two punches and ended up playing six straight scoreless quarters to start the season. All in all, a promising start for the defense, but one about which the Mountaineers feel could be better.